“I don’t think you’ll be surprised by anything here. If you’ve been paying attention in class and doing your homework, you won’t have a problem here.”
Alister took the sheet, placing it face down on his desk.
“This is knowledge you’re going to need for just about everything you learn from here on out. If you don’t know this by the time you’re in high school, you’re going to fall behind.”
When the teacher had progressed far enough down the aisle, Alister reached into a pocket.
The pocketwatch was old, chipped, and the clasp sometimes took a few tries to work. Some of the damage was his fault.
In the corner of his eye, he could see his cousin. Ainsley was moving her hand, trying to get his attention. This, in turn, got the interest of a few more of their classmates.
“No,” she hissed.
Now people were staring at him. Lola Duchamp was among them, craning her neck from her spot at the very front of the classroom. Attention made the next part harder, which was probably intentional on Ainsley’s part.
She was such a pain.
He turned his head, glaring at her. Her hair was in braids, which didn’t suit her, and she wore glasses that he knew she hated. She wore a shirt with a frilly collar underneath overalls, and he knew she hated the clothes too.
Sad thing was, he thought, Behaim girls didn’t tend to age well. They were healthy, but healthy was not a label most girls liked to have stuck on them. Ainsley would be one of those most.
Going by their older cousins, she’d be pretty as a teen, and then she’d get… blocky. But the sad fact was, she was stuck with her parents while she was a teen, and her parents were dead set on making her a dork.
The two of them were as different as night and day. If it weren’t for their last names, nobody would even guess they were cousins. Much less that they were even friends.
Ah, Ainsley. You always play by the rules. We’d all be happier if you didn’t.
He span the pocketwatch like it was a top. It wasn’t, however, and it rattled as it turned onto one side, metal clicking against the cheap plastic cover of the school desk.
He stopped it with his hand. It clacked, hard, against the surface of the desk.
“Alister,” the teacher said, stopping midway through his process of handing out the quiz papers. “Do I need to confiscate whatever toy you’re playing with?”
“I don’t think so,” Alister said.
“I hope you’re right. No more noise, please.”
The moment the teacher’s back was turned, he pressed the button at the top of the pocketwatch. The door came away, revealing the face and hands below. The only peculiarity was the existence of two hour hands and two minute hands. One set in black, one set in red.
It wasn’t fancy, it wasn’t well made. But it kept time.
In more way than one.
Alister turned the dial that encircled the button at the top of the watch. The red hands moved.
One hour and fifteen minutes.
Ainsley made a firm gesture, glaring at him, but was forced to relent as her classmates got distracted, and the teacher reached the last desk, handing the last test paper to Lola Duchamp.
“Eyes forward, please,” the teacher spoke.
Lola reluctantly looked away from Alister to turn her attention to the paper. Ainsley, too, focused on her test paper, though Alister could see her watching him out of the corner of one eye. When their eyes met, she sighed visibly, and raised her hand to block her vision of him.
Deliberately looking away.
Alister hit the button on the top. Simple mechanics made the clasp that held the lid of the pocket watch open move, but the lid was already open. The bent section of wire shifted position, and completed a diagram.
The diagram, in turn, housed a lesser zeitgeist, the smallest form of time spirit that could be tracked and bound.
The hour and minute hands moved, an almost instantaneous shift to where the red hands were.
“…translate between fractions, percents, and decimals,” the teacher was saying.
The test papers were gone. His books were open, and his own handwriting was in the notebook. The last section had a list of homework questions.
“And finally, let’s do five questions from section B. We’ve got some equations to solve, with percents in there. This is not hard. Let’s see… questions one, three, seven, and twelve.”
Alister marked down the questions.
Class ran for a few more minutes before the bell rang.
He dragged out the process of packing up his bag, hoping that it would give Ainsley an excuse to leave. Putting books away, pens, papers. He glanced back at the pages to see what he’d missed. He hadn’t actually disappeared, only giving up his perception of time.
But time was relative, and understanding that meant one understood a lot of the Chronomancy stuff.
He watched Molly Walker exit the classroom. She glanced at him, then glanced away. Lola Duchamp stepped back to get out of Molly’s way, though Molly wasn’t walking that fast.
Lola had a bit of a hard look in her eye, as she watched the Walker girl disappear down the hall.
Lola understood. Most of the family did. Molly was a Thorburn, whatever her last name, and the Thorburns were dangerous. Instinctively, Lola had cleared out of Molly’s way.
What did Molly make of it? Did she catch the look Lola had given her? Or was it something that she only caught once or twice a day? A cumulative pressure?
He realized he was still staring at the door… and Ainsley was waiting at the door. He couldn’t be too obvious that he was stalling for time.
“Dick,” he said.
“Hm?” A classmate asked.
“What’d you think? The test?”
Dick made a so-so gesture with his hand. “You?”
“I feel pretty good about it,” Alister said.
“Nerd. You’ve been wrong before. You’ve been hilariously wrong.”
Alister smiled and shrugged.
He caught a glimpse of Ainsley, who was standing by the classroom door, arms folded.
“Want to come over this afternoon?” Dick asked.
“Can’t. Got a thing.”
“You have lots of ‘things’ these days. I was talking to Tom about it. He thinks there’s something you’re doing and you’re too chicken to say.”
“Oh? Really?” Alister asked. “What sort of thing would I be chicken about?”
“He was joking around and saying it was something gay like ballet or cheerleading.”
Alister’s smile was cold and humorless. It clearly made Dick uncomfortable. “What do you think?”
“I dunno,” Dick said. “We were just joking around.”
“So you did have a guess?”
“Nah,” Dick lied, shrugging.
Doesn’t sound like Tom.
“I wonder where he got that idea in his head,” Alister said, his eyes tracking Lola as she headed across the front of the room, glancing briefly at him as she passed through the door.
Wouldn’t be the first time. Lola had awakened a full year younger than he had. It didn’t sound like much, but she had twice the experience with all this that he did.
“Dunno,” Dick said. “I gotta go get my lunch from my locker, and I’m gonna get something from the vending machine, want to come with?”
Alister measured the intensity of Ainsley’s glare, trying to judge her mood.
No, she was too annoyed to mess with. He couldn’t stick with Dick and dodge her.
“I might meet up with you later. Ainsley’s pissed at me, I think.”
Alister drew the pocket watch out of his pocket, showing it to Dick.
“You steal that from your dad or something?”
“Something,” Alister said. He clasped a hand on Dick’s shoulder, then broke away, the two of them going in different directions.
Ainsley fell in step beside him.
She’s going to nag me, Alister thought, suppressing an out-loud groan in favor of a mental one.
“What are you doing?” Ainsley nagged him, the moment they were out of earshot of anyone.
“I’m going to go get lunch.”
“With the timekeep,” she said.
“What do you think?”
“I think you’re gaming the system.”
“Of course I’m gaming the system,” he said.
“I’m not- I’m… I guess I’m skipping class. Literally. But-”
“But your parents and my parents and our aunts and our uncles and our grandparents have all gone over the rules, talking about the risks and the dangers. Time isn’t something you mess with.”
“It’s made to be messed with,” Alister said.
“We’ve only been practicing for the last year.”
“It’s not fine. You’re going to get hurt, or you’re going to get in trouble.”
“I’m not going to get in trouble if you don’t tell.”
“You’re going to get hurt, you jackass.”
“Keep saying it,” he replied, annoyed, “and you’ll probably make it true.”
“How many times do I have to say it before I get it through your thick skull? You can’t be reckless about this.”
“Can too,” he said.
“Can,” he said, “and will.”
She punched him hard in the arm.
“Watch what you’re saying,” she said.
“I am. Look at this. Where are we?”
“A training ground,” he said. “Lola’s messing with me, I think.”
“Feels that way. Thread-wise. Planting seeds.”
“Magic seeds? There are rules.”
“Rules, rules, rules. You think Lola’s playing by the rules? Do you think our parents are?”
“That’s not what I’m saying.”
“Say it clearer then,” he retorted.
Ainsley spoke through grit teeth, “You can break rules, but only after you’ve learned them.”
“I’m a fast learner.”
“Yeah? That’s why you’re skipping classes? How much are you putting in the bank there, Alister? Because I’m pretty sure we’re only required to fill one timekeeper a month. I’m almost positive they keep track of this stuff.”
She had her own pocketwatch in her hand. Hers had a proper chain, and wasn’t quite as beat up.
“They do,” he said. “But Old Will keeps the books over at his place, and Timothy has the log in the library. They don’t really communicate that much.”
“They don’t- what are you doing, Alister? We avoid giving up too much time. Every single Behaim in the family gives up only what they have to, and you’re… what? Giving up twice as much time?”
He didn’t respond.
“…More than twice as much time?”
“Old Will is, well, old, for all intents and purposes. So if I give up as much as the other adults, he doesn’t notice.”
“A device every week? Plus the one you’re giving Tim? Five times what you’re supposed to be giving up?”
More than five times, he thought, but he didn’t volunteer that. Tim accepted more if he gave more.
“Why?” Ainsley asked.
“If I said, it might be a problem,” he said.
“Oh, it might? It’s already a problem. You’re wasting your time. It can’t be as simple as you wanting to skip school.”
“I’m doing what I want to do with my time,” he said. “It’s none of your business.”
“Alister,” Ainsley said, grabbing his wrist before he could walk away. “That’s can’t be it. Tell me why.”
“Tell me why,” Laird said.
Alister seethed. Ainsley stood a bit behind Laird, and their moms and dads. She looked a little spooked.
“I don’t think Ainsley was lying,” Laird said, “I don’t think you were lying when you told her what you did. There’s a chance you were manipulated into doing this. Motivation matters.”
“I wasn’t manipulated.”
“You can’t make that judgement call yourself. Poisoning the well would be a key play for the Duchamps. Poisoning you and compelling you to feed that poison into the supply could destroy the family.”
“That’s not it,” Alister said.
“No,” Laird replied, “Probably not.”
Laird had this calm, assured manner of speaking, as if nothing could faze him. When he said something, it was hard to argue against it. Some of it was leadership, maybe, but some was just Laird’s natural way. Alister wondered if his uncle could talk a bad guy into a confession, just laying out the facts, and getting the guy to agree, until the guy was spilling his guts.
Uncle Laird continued, “We haven’t detected anything. But until you give us answers, we may have to take countermeasures. No more lessons, no more practicing, no access to the well, to give or take.”
“-Fair?” Laird finished. “Nothing is fair.”
It took a moment for the words to sink in. Alister was dimly aware of the adults exchanging looks of surprise.
Dangerous words, for a man that couldn’t lie.
“Nothing is fair,” Laird repeated himself, his words filling the silence.
Alister swallowed hard.
Uncle Laird was a hard man to face down. Especially when he was all serious like this.
“What were you doing?” Laird asked, his voice serious. “Missing school-”
“My grades are good!” Alister blurted. He could see how irritated his parents were. His dad was pursing his lips, like he could barely restrain himself from shouting.
But right here, right now, they were deferring to Uncle Laird.
“School is about more than grades.”
“It is, which is why I’m doing this. I want to be a good practitioner.”
“You need to know how to study if you’re ever going to get a grasp on chronomancy.”
“I am,” Alister said, feeling more in control. “I’m studying harder than anyone. But I don’t want to ever have a desk job. I want to be a full time chronomancer. Hours upon hours of time in class is… it’s not what I want.”
“The quality of time you put into the timekeeper is important,” Laird said.
“Weren’t you just saying school was important?”
Alister’s father cut in, “Don’t be a smart alec.”
“I’m not trying to. I’m…”
There was a pause.
“What?” Laird asked.
“I’m… trying to be smart. That’s all.”
Laird leaned back in his seat. “So you think time spent in school is the best time for you to give up?”
Alister sensed a trap, but nodded all the same.
“Speak,” Laird said. “I want to know you’re not lying.”
“I do think so. Sir.”
“It would be one thing if you did it to put in the minimum, but Ainsley said you put in several times that. I checked with Old Will and Tim. There are logs.”
Laird spoke softly, “You had to know you’d get caught.”
“We check the books-”
“-Every year,” Alister finished.
“Yes. You’re aware, then.”
“I thought I’d be able to do it for another four months or so.”
“You picked the time you started this… operation, and you did it very deliberately, it seems. You knew when you’d finish. Putting nearly thirty hours a week into the well. Almost fifteen hundred hours, by the year’s end.”
“I’m going to need you to tell me why.”
Alister glanced –glared– at his cousin.
“Please leave us alone,” Laird said.
“But-” Ainsley said.
“Please,” Laird spoke.
All of the others began to leave.
Alister met his cousin’s eyes.
“Narc,” he said, under his breath.
“Stop, Ainsley,” Laird said.
Ainsley stopped in her tracks.
“Your family member, your cousin, just did what she did out of genuine worry for your well being. For the family’s sake, because she feared something very similar to the poisoning of the well I described earlier.”
Alister shrugged. “Sure.”
“I refuse to let you hold a grudge against her. Forgive her.”
Laird looked imposing. Where Alister and Ainsley were still growing, taller than their peers, but not yet as big as their grown family members, Laird was tall and wide and sturdily built. Heavy eyebrows made his glare all the more ominous.
“Forgive your cousin.”
“But I can’t lie, and I don’t forgive her.”
“You’re going to try. Promise,” Laird ordered, “to try.”
“Alister,” Laird said, “What you’ve been doing, I don’t think you’d keep it secret from family unless it potentially hurt members of this family. If you can’t forgive your cousin for acting in your best interests, I can’t trust you to be a part of the Behaim circle.”
Meaning being forbidden from practicing. Or worse.
Ainsley was taller than him, her shoulders broader. She looked so silly, dressed up like a kid from ten or fifteen years ago. Overalls.
But… she’d always had his back, before.
Most of the cousins had. Ainsley was just closest to him in age.
“I’ll try to look past this,” he said. “I don’t want this to end our friendship.”
Ainsley nodded, stiff. “Me either.”
“Go,” Laird said. “I’d like to have a word in private with Alister. I don’t think he’ll share if others are listening.”
Ainsley and the assorted adults left.
Laird stood, crossed his living room to the kitchen, and grabbed a beer. He checked the time, prompting Alister to look and see for himself.
“Five,” Laird said. “Good enough. Now talk, because if you don’t, I’m going to assume the worst.”
“Control,” Alister said.
“Of… the well. Kind of. I’m thinking, for all the generations before, you couldn’t get to be head of the family or member of the council without being here. Without paying your fair share. The guys in Ottawa and Montreal and Toronto, they don’t really have a shot at being head of the family, right? I don’t think it’s ever happened.”
Laird arched an eyebrow. “You want to supplant me?”
“No,” Alister said, dead serious. “I want to be next in line.”
Laird sat down, bottle of beer in hand. He took a drink, then leaned back once more. “What makes you think this works?”
“It makes sense. Some people don’t pay in as much. But… you pay in more, and you’re in charge of the family. I’m pretty sure Aimon paid a fair bit of time into the well, before you.”
“He did, but we didn’t do it for the reasons you did. We did it for the family.”
“I know. But I can do it for the family and I can do it for my own goals too. Even if it doesn’t work, if I give up a piece of myself, something has to fill the gap, right? Time is fundamental. Take some away, and it deals collateral damage. I’m not sure, but I think people around me lose time too. If I’m doing it in school, where I’m surrounded by other practitioners, and borrow a bit of power, a bit of spirit from everything around me.”
“Including Ainsley, and your other cousins.”
“What I take from them, I can give back,” Alister said. More serious, he said, “If I become great, I will give back. I believe that. But I’m also taking from the Duchamps. I can see it. Chipping away at them. I become a little more Other, giving something as precious as time away, and they… have to adjust. They’re adjusting because of me, and that gives me a certain kind of power, doesn’t it?”
“You imagine that you’re influencing things in a subtle way, doing what you’re doing. Incremental advantages for you, disadvantages for your enemies.”
“You’re probably right,” Laird said. “You’re sacrificing your childhood for something else. Investing more.”
Alister didn’t dare respond. Everything hinged on this.
“You think the invested time will favor you because you’ve given more of yourself to it.”
“Pretty cocky, for a boy who isn’t even in high school yet.”
“I’m smart,” Alister said. “I’m good. Better than Ainsley or Owen or Gavin. And Owen and Gavin-”
“Are older,” Laird said.
“Yes. They aren’t half as good as you. It seems the cards don’t lie.”
Laird turned around in his chair, and reached to the shelf. Boxes were lined up.
He seemed to decide, then picked one. He picked a book from the far end of the same shelf. Both box and book were placed on the coffee table between them.
Alister opened the box, lifting off the lid. Cards were stacked within.
“Keep those. You’re going to want to study the subject material, and study it fast. Given what you’ve talked about, I think it’ll be a natural fit.”
“Your future was read a long time ago. Decisions were made.”
“To arrange a different binding for you, alongside your awakening. So you wouldn’t be constrained in the same ways.”
“I don’t remember anything like that.”
“We were subtle,” Laird said. “Just as Aimon was more subtle with me, just in case things didn’t work out. We decided you had potential, and paved the way. We didn’t, however, expect you to be quite as quick as you were to start being inventive.”
“I’m not sure I get it.”
“Things are moving towards a crisis point,” Laird said. “The question of who leads the Behaim family is secondary to the question of who leads Jacob’s Bell. We’re anticipating conflict, Aimon anticipated conflict, and we can’t have every member of the family fettered by rules. A select few have been vetted, cleared to tap into the well and use that power as they see fit. I was one, you’re another.”
Alister’s eyes went wider.
“I expected to wait another few years for you to get your bearings, but seeing as you’re already walking the path, we might as well get underway.”
Laird stood, setting the bottle on the short table by the chair. “Come.”
All this time, he’d thought he was walking his own path, and now… Alister shook his head. “What’s going on? Where are we going?”
“I know you have a lot of questions, but try to save them. You’ll have most of the answers soon enough, and you might find yourself wishing you hadn’t wasted all your questions on the simpler things.”
“I have limited questions?”
“You’re proud, Alister, and a proud person can only ask so many questions before they exhaust that pride. We’re very different people, but I think we’re similar in that.”
They passed Ainsley and the assorted adults, heading outside.
“What’s going on?” Ainsley asked, a concerned look on her face.
Well, if he got in trouble, she’d be at fault.
“Private lessons,” Laird said. “We’re stepping up his training.”
“He’s getting rewarded?” Alister’s father asked.
Laird didn’t answer, except to say, “He’ll be back home by dinner, Jonathan.”
Alister hurried into the car, before his parents could tear into him.
Ainsley was staring at him.
He shut the car door, and pulled on the seatbelt, but Laird was already pulling out.
A proud person could ask only so many questions. It made sense.
He had to pick the questions carefully, so the asking elevated.
Alister picked his question carefully. “You keep saying we. But I don’t think you’re talking about the family.”
“Not the Behaim circle, no.”
“Who’s we, then?”
Rose was intimidating, considering she was thin and old. Her clothes looked fragile too, starched, or lacey, or just old, though certainly not worn or threadbare. They were a statement. She was just a bit aristocratic.
There were words she could say that would overturn Alister’s entire world. If she had something summoned, a simple snap of her fingers…
Laird stood on the far side of the living room. It put Alister right in the old woman’s sights.
For the better part of his life, Alister had been told that you didn’t speak to the Thorburn diabolist, you didn’t look at her, you didn’t even think about messing with her or anything of hers.
Even Molly, Christoff, or Callan Walker were supposed to be off limits. Some did mess with them, especially the younger kids. They sensed the vibe, maybe, and they acted on it, but even then, it was uncommon.
“Sit,” she said.
He had to tear his eyes way to find an appropriate chair.
He took a seat, closer to Laird.
The room went dark. It wasn’t the lights – the lights and lamps weren’t on.
“Um,” he said, turning.
Laird was shutting the curtains.
“Eyes forward,” the old woman said.
When Alister looked, she had chalk in hand.
“I never believed in mollycoddling,” she said.
Oh. Oh shit. Oh shit.
She dropped to one knee, surprisingly easily for someone her age.
The chalk touched floorboard.
Alister started to rise from his seat. Laird’s hands pushed him down.
“You need to know what you’re dealing with,” Laird said.
“Dealing with? I’m not and never planning on-“
“Pay attention,” Laird said. “If you miss something, you’ll need to sit through this again. Take it from me, you don’t want to.”
Those words sent a chill through Alister.
“-Sat where you sit, in a manner of speaking. I had that seat over there, I think.”
“You did,” the old woman said.
“Why? What’s going on?”
“An introductory lesson, one of several. You’ll need to know how to defend yourself, and this is the first step. Knowledge is power, and practice,” the old woman said, “makes perfect.”
“Why do I need to know how to defend myself?”
“First choir. Darkness,” she said, not answering his question.
Or maybe she was.
“I call on Ouhim,” she said.
Alister’s heart leaped into his throat when he saw the diagram. A simple circle, without ornamentation.
He saw the space within the circle turn black.
A head, or a face, pale, rose from the pool of darkness. The silhouette was sleek, like a person with long black hair, plastered to their head with water, and a long black dress that covered the hands, clinging to their form. Genderless. Human shaped, but not humanoid.
Two eyes, no nose, mouth or ears. The eye sockets were only dark pits, utterly black within.
Laird wasn’t holding him down anymore. He found himself rising out of his seat, despite himself, staring at the twin pools of darkness.
Shaking his head, he looked away.
With a sound like a mountain splitting in half, a black crack spread across its face, as if the mask had splintered.
The crack swiftly spread beyond its face, onto the walls, across bookshelves, a foot above old woman Thorburn’s head, where she sat in the armchair opposite Alister. Destroyed novels and pieces of wood fell to the floor.
There wasn’t a muscle in Alister’s body that wasn’t seized tight.
“It’s not…” Alister couldn’t form words. “Bound properly.”
“It’s sufficiently bound for our needs,” the old woman said. “I have an established relationship with it. It won’t do permanent damage, provided we don’t let it.”
He opened his mouth to speak, but the words weren’t there. He looked back at Laird.
Laird’s expression was grim.
“Go, Ouhim,” the old woman said.
The smile faded, the crack closing, until there wasn’t the slightest seam or scar.
Ouhim disappeared the way it had come, faster, dropping into the circle as though it were dropping into a hole.
In the aftermath of Ouhim’s visit, the bit of fallen wood from the bookshelf and two books that had been split in half remained ruined.
“I thought you said it wouldn’t do permanent damage,” Alister said, pointing.
“That’s not the kind of permanent damage she’s talking about,” Laird spoke.
That Laird knew… it sent a fresh lance of fear into Alister’s heart.
“The second choir,” the old woman said.
“Wait, stop, please. Why are you showing me?”
“It’s a mnemonic tool,” she said. “You’ll see one member of each choir. You’ll remember until the day you die. It’s a good foundation to build from. After this, after I’ve instructed you in what they’re capable of, you’ll want to learn the necessary protections.”
“I want to learn already, I don’t need demonstrations. I don’t want this foundation. Tell me why you’re doing this. Why am I getting these lessons?”
Laird sighed, just behind him.
The old woman was looking at Laird, too, as if they were sharing some unspoken communication.
“You, Laird, or the both of you are likely to find yourself opposite my descendants. We face a unique situation.”
Unique how? he wondered, but he didn’t voice the thoughts aloud. As Laird had said, questions had to be reserved.
She walked around the circle. “Morax.”
It felt like being plunged into ice water. The air was thick. The light, too, seemed as if it was weighed down, pressed down into just blacks and reds, without shade or hue.
But when he looked, the circle was empty.
“Second choir, madness. Don’t panic.”
Alister felt a hand settle on his shoulder.
In this sharply contrasted world of black and red, the old woman’s wrinkles were like scars on her face, jagged lines of black, too sharp. “The situation is that we’re looking to enact revolution. Aimon was on the same page as me. Laird is… less so.”
“Yet I remain open minded,” Laird said. “Provided my family benefits.”
Laird’s voice and the existence of the hand on Alister’s shoulder didn’t jibe.
Alister glanced a little to the left, and saw just how large the hand was.
“The problem with revolution is that it involves conflict, and the various sides in this conflict wield too much firepower. My side most of all.”
Alister could barely hear her. The hand… it was attached to a muscular arm.
The arm was attached to a hairy man’s body.
The man, in turn, had a high forehead, and at the corners of the forehead, the skin twisted into a gnarled sort of halo, like a crown of thorns that was embedded in the demon’s head.
But the demon’s expression was placid, a light smile on his face. It might have been the forehead, but something about his appearance, somehow, evoked the idea of a scholar. A scholar, perhaps, that existed in an era long past, when scholars could have long hair, beards, bare genitals hanging free, and coarse hair on their chests.
His eyes, in this world of black and red, were a pale sky blue.
“My heir, whichever I select, may call things like this to use against you and your family, Alister. Wheels have been turning for a long, long time, and try as I might, I’m not in a position to stop them. They have too much momentum. Go, Morax.”
“Momentum,” Alister said, as the surroundings returned to normal colors, each color arriving in its own time.
The sensation of the hand’s weight on his shoulder didn’t leave.
“I shoulder a heavy weight of karma. I’ve managed it by being careful. Every action I take is deliberate. Whatever you might see, here, I’m being exceptionally careful, calling names I know I can trust. But careful doesn’t encourage change. Not when the entire universe is struggling to heal from grave wounds.”
“Wounds?” He asked, before realizing what he’d just left himself open to.
“Avert your eyes. Third choir, ruin. Zapan.“
Alister looked away just in time.
The demon manifested within the circle like a rolling thunderclap, a storm of images, each one demanding his attention, like a charging bull, a thrown object, all outlined and augmented by fire and lightning and other light shows. The assaults weren’t reserved for him, but at everything. Every mote of dust and book and person in the room.
“My understanding of things is simple, Alister. Every Other is, if you trace things back far enough, the fault of demons. Every practitioner is the fault of Others, or, for a rare few, the fault of demons. All of these things, in their way, guide all of existence slowly toward its end. The unlucky few who get in too deep fall into their clutches.”
Zapan screeched, an eerie, broken sound just at the bounds of his ability to hear, making Alister feel like things inside him were breaking and would never feel okay again.
“Virtually all practices, Alister. Call it a diabolist’s bias, but I would posit that the only difference between Laird and I is the level of self-delusion.”
“For the record,” Laird said, “I don’t agree.”
The roaring, thundering, broken noise came to an end, and the moments of silence that followed were almost worse, they were so raw.
“You’re doing this so easily.”
“Given excuse or predilection my heir may, too. These were three very different types of demon, from the three primary choirs. Can you see yourself, five years from now, defending yourself from this? If the circle hadn’t been here, and I was your enemy?”
“No. Not at all.”
“With time and training, we’ll hopefully develop that into a maybe. Maybe, in the right circumstances, you could defend yourself.”
“You’re neutering your own side?”
The old woman pressed thin lips together. “You’re on my side more than those things are. Sandra is, too, even if she loathes me. You’ll understand that too, in time.”
“I don’t understand my role. What do you want from me?”
“I’ll explain,” she said. “I believe that the ability to practice comes from demons. I believe the world’s attempts to balance itself are a response to this. A response to us. We practice, the spirits judge as a proxy for all of existence, and the spirits right the wrong. But much like a spinning top, the world is teetering out of balance, Alister. The jerks this way and that will get only more severe. Push, and the world pushes back.”
“Or you topple it,” Alister said. “The top tips over, and goes flying across the table, and it stops spinning altogether.”
The old woman nodded. “I can’t hope to fix things. The universe seeks to maintain its balance, but this makes it hard to change things. As I said, it pushes back. Sandra’s family has done what it has done for nearly five hundred years. The Behaims have done what they’ve done for three hundred. Crone Mara existed before the Algonquins. History has weight, and that much weight is difficult to move.”
“The leadership of Jacob’s Bell may be a movement,” Laird said. “Or an opportunity to bring it about. A brief window of time, where we can change the status quo.”
“But this remains difficult,” the old woman said. “Even fixing my own family is… I’m not equipped for it. Getting involved, it only exposes them to this. And I decided long ago that we need better foundations, if we’re to build something solid enough.”
“I’m not sure I get it.”
“A nudge, Alister,” the old woman said. “Timed right, in the right direction, in the right amount, as things teeter to one side, and the top may well spin faster, in the right direction.”
“You’ll learn to use the cards, and you’ll learn your chronomancy,” Laird said. “I’ll be doing the same. With luck, one of the two of us will be able to time things appropriately.”
“Doubling our chances?” Alister asked.
“I don’t think so,” Laird said. “The penchant of the Behaims, I’m sure you’ve heard, is to stubbornly pummel the opposition into submission, then while they’re off balance, hit them with the finishing blow. I do the pummeling…”
He left the sentence unfinished.
“Okay,” Alister said, clenching his fists. It helped – his hands were still shaking a bit from the visitors earlier. “Okay.”
“Things are going to get much messier before they get better,” the old woman said. “But it’s much easier to affect things with a nudge when they’re already moving.”
“We have a lot to do,” Laird said. “You’ll need to learn to protect yourself and protect others. You’ll also have to get things in position, and–”
“And the nudge?” Alister asked. “What sort of nudge am I giving?”
“Stay here,” he said.
Ainsley gave him a concerned look. The timeless armor only obeyed.
“Please, Ainsley,” Alister said.
She relented, nodding. She looked around, as if she didn’t quite trust that the timing was right. Her candle was in one hand, pins in the other. Weapons at the ready.
Her nervousness was contagious. He used his implement, sorting through the cards.
Two of cups. Connection.
Rose was sitting on the cot as Alister opened the door. He’d expected her to be wearing a hospital gown, but she still wore her normal clothes. She hadn’t been drugged. In the worst case scenario, they would have needed her alert and capable.
Her clothes, he noted, were very, very similar to the ones the old woman had worn, the first time he’d seen her.
But Rose wasn’t the old woman. The atmosphere was the same, the sense of power, even here, where she should have been powerless. But Rose was something and someone entirely different.
All the same, he had no doubt that she was ready, able, and capable of speaking a word, using a gesture, and summoning something. The difference, a difference, was that she wouldn’t.
He smirked a little. You could only be told so many times that you were brilliant, that everything rested on your shoulders, without getting a little bit full of oneself. It was a shield, a buffer. The alternative was to crumble. In this critical moment, he had to choose one or the other.
“They just let you walk in here?” she asked.
“Nudged the shift schedules a bit,” he said. “There is a bit of a gap, right now.”
“I was hoping one of you would come to talk to me,” she said.
“You didn’t care which?”
“I have things I’d like to say to Sandra, and things I could say to Johannes…”
He checked the cards.
“They’re not coming for a while yet. It looks like it’s down to me,” he said.
“I assume something you’d say to me?”
She nodded, a tight motion.
“This sounds crazy, but…”
He drew the little box out of his pocket, opening it.
There was no joy on her face, but he did manage to get a small expression of surprise out of her.
“I had arguments, I was willing to threaten, it was even a long shot, but…”
“But why?” he asked.
“Getting things in position,” he said. “The junior council is on our side. The Behaims are backing me, even if they aren’t happy. Your people are… mostly okay.”
He saw the relief in her.
“They’ll be as close to safe as they can get, soon enough. I’m having the family call their creatures back in a minute. I expect Johannes and Sandra will follow suit. It’ll upset their tempo. Your friends will have time. We can use that time.”
“Well,” she said, “You’re looking like a knight in shining armor, here.”
“A good portion of this was Laird,” he said, “Not me.”
He could see the surprise on her face.
“This is going to get far worse before it gets better,” he said.
“It’s… pretty damn bad.”
He held up the deck, fanning out cards. “Greek to you, I imagine, but believe me. It’s going to get a lot worse, very fast. We’ve got company.”